There are four moral battles that the Church today must fight, and fight without ceasing. Any historical and ecumenical church that holds to a high view of Scripture cannot defer to other voices in the culture on these issues. When I say “a high view of Scripture,” I mean, roughly, the adherence to the divine inspiration of the totality of the Bible’s propositional content. Also, just to avoid any rhetorical criticism from those who utilize the political tactics of Critical Theory, when I say “fight,” I mean fight intellectually, not fight in the Vladimir Putin sense.
The four moral issues that the Church must address are: COVID-totalitarianism, LGBTQ+ Ideology, Abortion and Critical Social Justice. My approach to each of these battles is theological. In other words, I assume God exists and that He has spoken sufficiently so that we can make informed, biblical conclusions about what the Church should do and should not do given the present cultural context.
This does not mean there are not genuine moral dilemmas Christians face. Nor does it mean there cannot be variations on how we might approach those dilemmas. However, it does mean we can come to sound conclusions on all moral issues that present themselves. We can do this even if there may be more than one sound conclusion to each moral dilemma.
Taking Moral Stances: A Necessary Feature of The True Church
Nevertheless, there is also a wrong side to each of these moral issues. Of course, this claim already presupposes there is moral wrongness. Moral wrongness would be going against the nature and will of God in some way. Further, in going against God’s will, an offense to His nature, the Church will do more harm to God’s creatures than good to them.
Thus, to not resist ungodly movements, and fail to provide sound biblical alternatives to their core premises, simply gives ground to sin and Satan in denying God’s revealed Word and His plan and purpose for creation. In the words of the former Bishop of Rochester, Fulton Sheen:
The refusal to take sides on great moral issues is itself a decision. It is a silent acquiescence to evil. The tragedy of our time is that those who still believe in honesty lack fire and conviction, while those who believe in dishonesty are full of passionate conviction.
As such, men and women of good faith can never support totalitarianism. Just Never. Totalitarianism always aggresses against human freedom and enables the abuse of God-given power. Further, Christ’s Church cannot support any ideology that claims human sexual identity is malleable. Nor can it affirm that the human body is accidental or subject to the will of man or that the sacred structure of marriage is a purely historical phenomenon. This goes against love. In addition, God’s people cannot sit back and allow the destruction of innocent human life. To enable abortion is to enable a direct attack against the intrinsic value of the human person, persons created in God’s image.
Finally, the Church cannot agree with a social or political agenda that ignores or explicitly rejects necessary metaphysical and epistemological foundations of the Christian religion. There is no compatibility between any Marxist system, or system derived from Marx’ view of man, and the Church’s view. Yes, there may be similarities between Marxist thought on particular social ills and Jesus’ commands to be and act charitably. However, the Church’s answer to any social ill will never be compatible or congruent with a Marxist or Critical Theory one.
Further, different fundamental starting points to the same societal questions will lead to drastically different solutions. These varying solutions will and do play out politically, as has been evidenced by the entire, very bloody, history of the 20th century. And so the Church must take moral stances.
What is Critical Social Justice?
Philosopher James Lindsay has spent a great deal of time trying to define the phenomenon of social justice we see in America today. Referring to two authors considered authorities in the field of Critical Race Theory, Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, Lindsay settles on the term “critical social justice.” I will appropriate this term for argument’s sake.
Critical social justice describes a form of social activity grounded, in part, by earlier Marxist traditions of class conflict. It also assumes post-modern suppositions about human identity and incorporates theories of how to influence culture for the sake of instantiating a more “equal” society. The brunt of this current strain of social justice is a renewed attempt to de-stratify society, i.e., to end all hierarchies, through political and legal activism.
To de-stratify society critical social justice attempts to identify social groups that have been historically privileged in American society– at the top of the social hierarchy– and those that have been underprivileged or oppressed by these more privileged groups. Through social pressure and legislation the attempt is made to right the previous wrongs of history by rearranging America’s institutional structures. And this means each and every institutional structure must be rearranged. There can be no exceptions, not even in America’s churches.
There is a noble quest to be found here that should not be totally denied. After all, some hierarchies are bad ones. Thus, regardless of critical social justice’s heavy handed methods and proneness to causing further injustices (just to different social groups), it does make a point. For Christians this project may even appear fully compatible and commensurate with many of the moral injunctions that Jesus himself makes in the Gospels, as well as Paul, James and John in their epistles.
However, although critical social justice can be a notoriously problematic term to fill in, one thing is certain about its current manifestation. It shares nothing in common with the basic metaphysical principles and epistemic assumption of classic Christianity. It does not stand on the same moral grounding as Peter, Paul, James or John. In fact, it denies there is even a ground upon which Jesus and his Apostles and today’s social justice warriors could stand on, were they willing to do so.
Therefore, while there can be many nuanced debates of how continuous today’s version of critical social justice is with classical Marxism, Frankfurt-style Critical Theory or the french Postmodernism of the 1960’s and 70’s, what there cannot be is a nuanced discussion of how critical social justice is continuous with orthodox Christianity. They are simply in different universes. And, if we take our metaphysics seriously, that last sentence is meant literally and not metaphorically.
Three Foundational Aspects of CSJ
Critical legal scholars and race theorists of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s drew heavily, and explicitly, from classical Marxism, French post-modernism and the critical theory developed by German philosophers like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. These three traditions represent the three main lines of thought that emerged from Europe in the mid-20th century and that heavily influenced the critical social justice we see today. As such, it is vital to identify the main components of each of these traditions and show how they are, in essence, fundamentally in conflict with classic, creedal Christianity.
The First “First Thing:” Marxist Ontology
First, is Marx’s understanding of metaphysics and religion. Much of 19th century European intellectualism could be seen as a response to the 18th century skepticism of David Hume and Immanuel Kant’s subsequent critique of metaphysics. As such, alternative proposals were made about how to live in the wake of what seemed to be a devastating breakdown of a universally agreed upon ontology.
That ontology was, put simply, the material synthesis of the biblical revelation with Greek metaphysics. It was a view of the world expressed most analytically by Thomas Aquinas and most artistically by Dante. Further, the 19th century saw the deconstruction of the formal principle in charge of articulating, safeguarding and propagating that ontology. For Protestants that authority was the Bible and the national church with its varying denominations. For Roman Catholics it was the magisterial authority of the Vatican and the Pope (and the Bible too).
Marx was one of the 19th century luminaries who offered a compelling alternative system about how man should live in the wake of this supposed collapse of Christianity in the West. Contrary to the German pantheists and Romantics of the prior generation, Marx embraced a thoroughgoing atheistic materialism. For Marx, religious belief was, as his predecessor Ludwig Feuerbach argued, fundamentally a projection of the mind.
For Feuerbach, man was essentially a material being. That being had two aspects: the physical and the social. Alasdair MacIntyre sums up Feuerbach’s ontology:
Man, then, is a material being. “Man is what he eats.” But equally, man is formed by his relations with other men. “Man as a being sprung from nature is a creature of nature, not a man. Man is the product of man, of culture, of history.” But man who thinks is always dependent on man who eats. “If because of hunger, of misery, you have no foodstuff in your body, you likewise have no stuff for morality in your head.” This is the basis of Feuerbach’s materialism.
Alasdair MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.” Apple Books.
According to Feuerbach, and later Marx, religious beliefs were a projection of the “essence of humanity.” But this projection was an abstraction from the real world of concrete persons, it was an idealized wish with a superhuman deity at the center. Moreover, religious doctrines were nothing more than abstract, projected longings for far more mundane needs (food, shelter, social harmony). For Marx then, religious belief would simply fade away once the material and social needs of men were fulfilled through the practical application of philosophy. That practical application of philosophy would take place in history and through the culmination of economics.
Marx’s (Deceptive) Religious Impulse
It may come as a surprise to many that Marx was once an apparently committed Christian. In an early essay we find the young German waxing very theologically about man’s place in the world:
Thus the union with Christ means a most intimate and vital companionship with him, keeping Him before our eyes and in our hearts, and being permeated by the highest love, so that we can turn our hearts, toward our brothers, united with us through Him, and for whom He had sacrificed himself. But this love for Christ is not fruitless; it fills us not only with the purest reverence and highest respect for Him, but also has the effect of making us keep his commandment in that we sacrifice ourselves for each other and are virtuous, but virtuous only out of love for him.
Marx, “The Union of the Faithful with Christ” in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society
It has been well established over many decades of reflecting on Marx that Marxism has acted, more than any other worldview, as the secular replacement to traditional Christianity. It is no wonder that Christians of all traditions have been repeatedly attracted to it and equally deceived by it. This is why in 1968 the then Marxist, now Roman Catholic, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre could write that Marxism is
[The] only one secular doctrine [that] retains the scope of traditional religion in offering an interpretation of human existence by means of which men may situate themselves in the world and direct their actions to ends that transcend those offered by their immediate situation.
MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.” Apple Books.
Young Christians today sitting in the most conservative of American seminaries would say nothing different than what Marx wrote in his own schoolboy essays. But, this is why metaphysics matters. It is also why a critical social justice that rejects, even if not explicitly, the metaphysical foundations of creedal Christianity cannot be compatible with true Christian justice. You cannot reject God and assume you will get justice and peace among men. Of course, to be fair, neither can you just assume God and expect to get justice and peace among men either. But either way, the idea that one can reject God and then go do “x, y or z” as a Christian is simply incoherent.
The rejection of the moral law as found in the Bible and of natural law by all critical social justice scholars and activists (unless I find one tomorrow) is inevitable given a Marxist ontology. As such, the Church cannot simply jump on board the social justice train. It must articulate its own form of social justice and argue for the superiority of that view for the sake of all people in society.
The Second “First Thing:” Social Theory and The Nature of Truth
In his magisterial work on the Frankfurt School, biographer and philosopher Rolf Wiggershaus references the work of social theorist Franz Borkenau. Borkenau, although not a member of Max Horkheimer’s Institute for Social Research, nevertheless wrote an influential article for the institute’s Journal of Social Research while on scholarship in Frankfurt in 1935. In that article, “The Sociology of the Mechanistic World-View” Borkenau articulated a method for evaluating truth claims that is consistent with Marx’s metaphysics. Instead of there being universal truths that are accessible to all men regardless of location in history or culture, Borkenau thought that intellectual views were products of social classes. Wiggershaus explains:
Borkenau’s method…was thus to assign intellectual products to classes or sections of classes which were either in advance or retreat, optimistic or pessimistic, progressive or regressive, or vacillating.
Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 125
In other words, what determined whether a view was “optimistic” or “progressive” as opposed to “pessimistic” or “regressive” was the social class of the person articulating the view. Further, the social classes in which thinkers reside are themselves products of historical and material conditions. As such, any claim about reality is, at bottom, a product of historical conditions that have given rise to certain social classes and only then the person living in that historicized social class.
Borkenau’s View of Universality
Thus, according to Borkenau, when someone like the 17th-century Roman Catholic mathematician Blaise Pascal articulated the idea of “the abstract need for salvation in the midst of a world wholly alienated from salvation,” he universalizes the need for salvation because he is a “bourgeois” philosopher. According to this kind of historicized view of man, any claim to truth that claims to be universally true is nothing more than a product of the social class of the one making the claim at that time. For Borkenau, Pascal falsely assumed the need for salvation applied to a world “wholly alienated” from it, simply because he was in the social class of the bourgeois. Whether or not the world really is alienated and in need of salvation is irrelevant.
This notion of truth, as self-defeating as it may seem, is rampant in today’s critical social justice dialogue–if one can call it a “dialogue.” Thus, claims are not evaluated according to their truth values or their practicality or their virtue. Instead they are evaluated according to the social categories of their speakers. For now, white, heterosexual, cis-gender males have the very short end of the stick in this regard. Their claims do not register highly when measured against those of, say, black, homosexual, non-binary persons. It is not the truth value of the claim that matters, it is only the social class of the person making it that matters.
In fact, when any claim to universality is made, e.g., “that all men are all created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” such a claim is itself seen as a mere product of white, heterosexual, male and, likely, affluent normativity. It is the social categories and material conditions of the person that produce the truth claim, not some discovery of the truth by the person making it. I myself am reminded of this every time I look at the comments section on my Patheos posts.
Ezekiel Bulver’s Bulverism
Truth claims as such are never about “truth.” They are about the person making them. This is what C.S. Lewis termed “Bulverism” in honor of the fictional character he created, Ezekiel Bulver:
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism”.
Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third—”Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment”, E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
Lewis, God in the Dock
On such social theories, man is the maker of “truth,” since there is no transcendent “fixed point” by which to adjudicate normative claims. These are the kind of claims we are talking about when talking about things like justice.
Is Science Safe?
However, even scientific claims, as Lewis presciently pointed out, are downstream from this social theory of truth. For scientists, or geometry teachers, are no more exempt from the material and social conditions that made them than their religious counterparts.
Thus, in principle, there can be “white science” and “male science” and “feminine science” and “gay science” and, yes, maybe even “female geometry!” What matters is who is doing the science, not the actual data or facts about an objective reality. Those too are universal claims, and universal claims are always fundamentally “power plays.”
Sharon Crasnow in her article on “Feminist Science” alludes to the issue of scientific truth when she says:
Feminists have detailed the historically gendered participation in the practice of science—the marginalization or exclusion of women from the profession and how their contributions have disappeared when they have participated. Feminists have also noted how the sciences have been slow to study women’s lives, bodies, and experiences. Thus from both the perspectives of the agents—the creators of scientific knowledge—and from the perspectives of the subjects of knowledge—the topics and interests focused on—the sciences often have not served women satisfactorily.
“Feminist Perspectives on Science“, emphasis added
This view of truth is thoroughly incompatible with any orthodox Christian worldview. Most of all because it would reduce the Bible to nothing more than a set of contingent and malleable claims created by a particular people group (ancient, Middle Eastern men) in a particular time (between 1200 BC and 90 AD) for their own particular purposes (social power, existential comfort, etiological explanation).
However, that said, it could be that some form of Crasnow’s view of knowldege could apply to biblical hermeneutics. After all, female theologians can (and often do) see things about the biblical revelation that their male counterparts have traditionally missed. Nevertheless, what certainly cannot be said is that men or women, or Blacks or Asians, create biblical knowledge. That is most certainly a bridge too far.
In a theological register, then, this idea marks the shift from seeing the Bible and its contents as an inspired revelation from a transcendent God to finite man, to seeing Scripture as a set of mystical writings that are merely a product of human culture, even if a very profound product. On this view, any claim the Bible makes is not to be seen as fixed and binding for all men in all times. The content of Christianity’s sources, e.g., the Bible and the historical teachings of the Church, is not universal and authoritative. Rather, it is, at best, helpful on occasion. At least, that is, those passages that still fit our cultural mood (usually passages like 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4:8)
However, when biblical propositions seem no longer pertinent to our cultural context and our felt needs, that biblical content can be readily discarded. We can take or leave the Bible as easily as we can take or leave Homer, Hesiod or Horace–whom we have pretty much gotten rid of as well.
The Third “First Thing:” Post-Modernism and The Crisis of Identity
In his 1990 article “A Cultural Pluralist Case for Affirmative Action in Legal Academia” Harvard law professor Duncan Kennedy clarifies at the outset of his treatise that we must understand social groups through the lens of post-modernism:
We need to be able to talk about the political and cultural relations of various groups that compose our society without falling into racialism, essentialism, or a concept of the “nation” tied to the idea of sovereignty. We need to conceptualize groups in a “post-modern” way, recognizing their reality in our lives without losing sight of the partial, unstable, contradictory character of group existence.
While this is a very loaded statement, one that also undermines the idea of sovereign nation-states, the “post-modern” view of groups that I want to highlight here has to do with Kennedy’s warning against “essentialism.”
For the postmodern thinker there are no such things as essences. Nothing, not even human persons, have essential features about them. The human person him or herself (or its-self to be gender safe) is equally as malleable as the meaning of texts. Critical race theorist Angela Harris sums up this notion of postmodern identity in her essay on non-essentialism in feminist legal theory:
It is a premise of this article that we are not born with a “self,” but rather are composed of a welter of partial, sometimes contradictory, or even antithetical “selves.” A unified identity, if such can ever exist, is a product of will, not a common destiny or natural birthright.
Harris, Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory, 584.
This view of identity is a natural consequence of Marxist ontology. Harris, unlike her modern predecessors who would reduce people down to their atoms, realizes that one cannot neglect the social properties of the human person. Social identity matters to social theorists. This should be obvious on its face. However, can Christians really agree with Harris or Kennedy’s claims about personal or group identity being fundamentally social? Is one’s identity really a “product of will?”
Self-Identity and the Imago Dei
Our social identities clearly matter. As Christians we do not deny or marginalize where God has placed each of us in human history. It is important that I am a male, European American (I reject the term “white” in honor of my southern Italian ancestors who would have been considered “non-white” Europeans). It matters that I am living in the late 20th and early 21st century and have inherited certain social norms and attitudes. However, these social features do not exhaustively describe me.
Thus, Christians should have an answer to the question posed by critical race theorists like Kimberlee Crenshaw who asks whether one should say, for example, “I am Black” or “I am a person who happens to be Black” (see Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins, 1297). For Crenshaw, the first statement is preferable, because it is empowering. However, for the Christian our power does not lie in our socially constructed identities, racial or otherwise. Our power lies in our created identities. It lies in the metaphysical fact that we are image bearers of God.
Further, given God’s providential plan for his creation, we would in fact answer differently from Crenshaw. We would not say “I am Black” or “I am Asian” or “I am White.” Rather, if we wanted to speak accurately, we would indeed say “I am a person who God happened to make Black, or Asian or White.” And, given the social identity that God has determined for me, it is my obligation to understand how God desires me to fulfill that identity.
No one is a product of his or her (or “their”) own will as Harris suggests. This very notion not only goes against basic metaphysics, i.e., that there is a substantive self, a personal agent, that persists over time and who is you. It also goes against the fundamental Christian doctrine of creation. You have not designed yourself, you are a creature by design. Finally, we will never know ourselves until we know the God who made us.
Theologian Ron Highfield summarizes this metaphysical truth about our human identity:
We come to the crucial point: it is only in knowing God that we can know our true name or identity or self, and in this knowledge we also gain self-awareness and self-possession. From self-awareness come determination, confidence and the will to live accordingly to our divinely given identity. Far from being a threat to our integrity, God’s complete and eternal knowledge of us is the ground of our unique personhood and the only hope of ever knowing our true selves.
Highfield, God, Freedom and Human Dignity, 148
Conclusion: Critical Social Justice is Not A Christian Project
Justice is a classical virtue and a biblical value. Christians should pursue justice in every domain of human interaction. However, critical social justice is a philosophy of man that is simply incompatible with classic Christianity. Followers of Christ must due their diligence in getting the “first things” straight, so that we can have confidence we are participating not in man’s projects but in God’s project.
Critical Social Justice assumes a Marxist ontology that presupposes atheistic materialism. As such it is foundationally at odds with Christianity. Second, given its atheistic materialism, Critical Social Justice has a theory of truth that is absolutely incompatible with any classic Christian doctrine of revelation. Critical Social Justice sees all truth claims as historically contingent and mere products of human beings in their time and place.
Finally, Critical Social Justice assumes a post-modern view of identity, one that suggests man is only the sum total of his social features. But this is false. Man is far more than just his race, gender or social location. Man is the image bearer of God. No one and no social or biological fact can add to or take away from this metaphysical fact. Nevertheless, sin can and has altered this image. Its restoration is the starting point for any true acts of justice. But that restoration can only come through Jesus Christ. And it is with and from this starting point that all justice must flow.